DARLINGTON, S.C. — Kyle Busch was just 23 laps away from a potential statement victory Sunday night, a so-close clinching win at rough-hewn Darlington Raceway that would’ve pushed his Joe Gibbs Racing team into the next round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. Then the smoke started puffing from his No. 18 Toyota.
“We’re blowing up,” Busch said through his in-car communications.
After leading a race-best 155 laps, Busch pulled to the apron and then pit road. The engine woes shorted out his dominant run in the Cook Out Southern 500 and saddled him with a crushing 30th-place finish in the postseason opener. It was also a missed opportunity, not just for the playoff implications but in the context of his season, where a Darlington win would have steered the headlines away from the contract uncertainty that’s hounded him this year.
“Real proud of the guys for their fight,” Busch said. “The guys on pit road tonight were awesome. So I had a lot of fun being up front, leading laps like that, being able to show what we’re made of. I just hate that we can’t finish with the points we need.”
Busch offset some of the dent in the standings with precious stage points — placing third and first at the respective breaks. But he’ll enter next Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET, USA, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM) sitting 11th in the Cup Series standings, just eight points up on the cut line.
Busch battled through a wall scrape late in the first stage, and he took the lead for the first time on the 118th of 367 laps. That leap up the scoring pylon came thanks to snappy service by his No. 18 pit crew, setting the tone for much of the evening.
Busch led for sizable chunks of the race’s midsection, his time up front interrupted by pit-stop cycles and the spurts of speed from teammate Martin Truex Jr., who had just missed the playoff field. Truex had made his own bid to play postseason spoiler with 48 laps led, but his power steering went sour, then his water pump belt gave out and the temperatures spiked under the hood of his No. 19 Camry.
Truex retired 31 laps from the finish, seemingly leaving Busch in a prime position. Busch lasted just nine laps longer.
“There’s no words,” Busch said. “Just oh well, I guess. You know, life goes on.”
No. 18 crew chief Ben Beshore joined his crew in peering under the hood to diagnose the issue, simultaneously as the No. 19 was being loaded on the team hauler. A Toyota representative said later that the preliminary indication on the No. 18’s issue was a full valvetrain failure.
Beshore said there was some consolation to be had in the performance, which netted Busch his most laps led in a race this season.
“If you’re looking for stuff to take away tonight, I guess that’s it,” Beshore told NASCAR.com. “The pit crew was dominant, and we were just keeping the balance close. I mean, Truex was gonna walk away with the thing and we were gonna be fortunate that they had a problem, and then we had a problem. So yeah, tough night overall, but we’ve got a really solid team here, another intermediate (track) coming up next week that’s somewhat similar, so we can go do the same thing again next week.”